U-M, MSU success a celebration in Michigan

March 24, 2013

On paper, it was just one factoid from the thousands created from the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

"This is the first time that Michigan and Michigan State have both advanced to the Sweet 16."

In reality, it was the end of a 35-year roller-coaster ride that wound up with enemy camps joining together for a one-day basketball festival unlike anything in state history.

On Saturday, most observers expected the Palace of Auburn Hills to be bitterly divided, with Michigan State fans cheering wildly for VCU and Wolverines pulling for the Memphis Tigers.

That never happened.

Yes, there were a few die-hard fans from East Lansing or Ann Arbor who took the approach of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," and would have rooted for anyone other than their cross-state rivals, but for most of the sold-out crowd, it became a celebration. Not of Michigan or Michigan State, but of basketball in the state of Michigan itself.

Die-hard Spartans spent the first game cheering Mitch McGary's rampage and Tim Hardaway's 3-pointers. An hour later, fans dressed in maize-and-blue were screaming as Adreian Payne made spectacular plays at both ends of the floor. At the end of the day — after Michigan had routed VCU and the Spartans had brushed aside Memphis — a single fanbase clad in green-and-gold happily left the Palace.

There were discussions of how things would go in Indianapolis and Dallas, and a general hope for a reunion in two weeks in Atlanta on college basketball's biggest stage. Even Michigan State coach Tom Izzo got into the act, happily admitting that he'd been happy to share allegiances for the day.

"I know it probably shocked the media, but I'm pulling for all the Big Ten teams, and that means I was pulling for Michigan," he said. "I was surprised, because I didn't think the fans would do that, but I felt like it was almost that way."

Izzo said that he thought the temporary bond between the schools was helped by the fact that the games were in easy driving distance of both campuses and being hosted by a third state school in Oakland University.

"It was pretty neat for our state to have two teams in one of the greatest basketball facilities in the country, and have it be right here in Detroit," he said. "It was great for the fans, great for the schools and great for the state of Michigan."

Of course, none of this could have happened if Izzo and Beilein hadn't become the first pair of coaches to simultaneously build strong programs at the schools. Michigan wasn't ready when Jud Heathcote and Magic Johnson won a national championship in 1979, and the Spartans weren't strong enough when Steve Fisher and Glen Rice won their title ten years later.

Michigan continued to be the state bullies in the early 1990s when the Fab Five owned the Crisler Center, but the aftermath from that era meant that Michigan State had the stage to themselves when Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson won it all in 2000.

Things have been on cruise control for Izzo, with 11 Sweet Sixteens in 16 years, but Michigan had to rebuild from the Ed Martin scandal. It didn't happen under Brian Ellerbe or Tommy Amaker, but John Beilein has slowly got the recruits he needed.

This should have happened last year, when the schools tied for the Big Ten title, but Michigan still had to pay off some bad karma — losing to the real "Ohio" in a first-round upset.

It was better this way, though. When the teams played at the Breslin Center in February, it was the first meeting when they had both been in the top 10. The second time? Nineteen days later at the Crisler Center.

So, not only are Michigan and Michigan State good at the same time, they are very good. They came within a Jordan Morgan tip-in of sharing another conference championship, and it happened in a year when there just happened to be a first-weekend pod at the Palace.

It could be 50 years before the stars align in the same way, or it might become a common occurrence. Either way, people will remember the year that Michigan and Michigan State teamed up to put on a basketball festival in Auburn Hills.

This isn't permanent, of course. Things won't be quite so friendly if the Wolverines and Spartans meet at the Georgia Dome on April 8, and if that doesn't happen, the battle lines will be definitely drawn back up on Nov. 2 at Spartan Stadium.

For one weekend, though, a split state merged into a single green-and-gold mass. Luckily, they didn't start wearing cheese on their heads.